Note: Feel free to skip the preamble and head right down towards the recommendations.
As the esteemed news outlet The Onion reported on July 10th, 2012, roughly 85,000 mainstream news stories have been written about the groundbreaking, skull-shattering, sanity-disrupting assertion that comics aren’t just for kids anymore. And don’t worry, this article isn’t adding to that number—The New Worcester Spy wouldn’t do you like that. But the subject of this piece might not be incredibly novel, because its conclusion is so evident everywhere we look: we are living in the middle of a huge renaissance of the comic medium.
While comics have always enervated American pop culture, their current occupation seems to be reaching a fever pitch. From now-ubiquitous critical concepts like the Bechdel Test (which requires that a piece of media must feature at least two women talking about something other than a man, originating in a 1995 strip of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For) to the massive superhero blockbusters that will be the sole engines of America’s economy for the next thousand years, the fruits of the comic medium have never been more plentiful or accessible.
And while there are swaths of fascinating mainstream comics coming out every month from Image, Marvel, DC, and other big publishers (like the world-weary humor of Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye to the amazing ridiculousness of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl), I’m going to limit the scope of this article to the smaller, relatively lesser-known indie titles and webcomics. There are hundreds of articles about the paranoid-conservative Batman of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, or Alan Moore’s technique-obsessed attempt to bookend the superhero genre with Watchmen, so I don’t have much to contribute to those titles. They’ve been made into movies, been added to the reading lists of college campuses, and inspired whole generations of comics creators to write protagonists who grit their teeth, pop the collars of their trench coats, and walk down gritty alleys in grungy, racially monotone cities, thinking gritty, nihilistic thoughts about gritty, nihilistic things, which are usually women. Before it sounds like I’m talking smack, I genuinely love both of those titles, but Reagan/Thatcher-era angst-fests like those are also responsible for the massive amount of aforementioned articles proclaiming that comics are no longer for children—a phenomenon which has left us with two different Batman movies about the Bush Administration, and at least one three-hour Superman movie where Clark Kent, beloved in the 70s for his presence as a winking benefactor, is now a brooding, unsmiling fisherman who listens to Pearl Jam and blows up his own city. There’s certainly a cherished place for sequential art dealing with adult themes, but at the same time, there’s a crucial difference between “not just for kids anymore” and “not for kids anymore.” There are also quite a few fascinating, tragic think-pieces on the connection between superhero movies and America’s attempt to heal from the psychic wound left by 9/11, but this article won’t be covering that, either. Sorry.
Comics are a huge medium, as sprawling and diverse as film or any other, so this piece will focus pretty narrowly on a few of my cherrypicked favorites, or comics of particular critical note. This list is by absolutely no means anywhere near a complete list of titles worth reading—these are just a bunch of some shmoe’s current favorites. If you’re interested in getting into the medium, the best way to do it is to get out there and do some exploring of your own. Some comics read like explosive, high-budget motion pictures, with sprawling splash pages and exhilarating plot twists; others are as quiet, intimate, funny, and heart-rending as a long phone conversation with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Personally, I tend to prefer the latter, so if that sounds boring, you probably don’t have to keep reading. Again, this is just the tip of an iceberg of a medium so vast it encompasses Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Avengers without breaking a sweat, so even if you don’t find anything to like within this list, chances are there are a few dozen out there that you’ll love. So anyway, with all of that hullabaloo out of the way, here are some cool comics.
Seconds, by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Bryan Lee O’Malley first came into prominence on the comic scene with his series Scott Pilgrim, following the travails of a musician/slacker named Scott as he fought his way through a series of evil exes to date the manic pixie dream girl he loves. The comic series was incredibly popular, and was then adapted into the 2010 Edgar Wright film of the same name. While that first series showed a considerable amount of talent in terms of humor, tone, and artistic technique, O’Malley’s presence as a creator is demonstrated way more efficiently in his zero-percent-fat, mega-efficient graphic novel Seconds. Seconds follows Katie, a young restauranteur coping with a quarter-life crisis and a failed relationship who discovers a way to do-over certain events of her life using a mysterious box of mushrooms. Not surprisingly, this goes terribly awry, but the real powerhouse feat of Seconds is the way O’Malley intimately examines the cost of ignoring your own mistakes, and refusing to own up to them. Beyond the strikingly-pretty art and the pitch-perfect caustic humor of the characters, the emotional core to Seconds is deceptively brutal–O’Malley utilizes the natural efficiency of the medium to tell a self-contained story of surprising maturity. You can read it in an afternoon, but it lingers with you for months afterwards.
Habibi, by Scott Thompson
Craig Thompson’s breakout graphic novel, Blankets, is a gorgeously rendered autobiographical account of the author’s attempt to move forward with his life, working through his religious-conservative background and his history of physical and sexual abuse. It is incredible, packed with a surprising amount of humor and an unsurprising amount of humanity and technical skill—but it is by no means a breezy read. His next work, Habibi (Arabic for “beloved” or “darling”), is staggeringly beautiful, but similarly brutal in terms of weighty subject matter. Habibi, set in an unspecified future time after a withering apocalypse has destroyed the earth, follows two characters over the course of nearly twenty years, empathetically examining their growth as human beings living in a world that is desperate, harsh, and sometimes shockingly beautiful. Rendered in dazzling calligraphic brushstrokes, with the main story punctuated by brief illustrated excerpts from the Quran’s creation story, it showcases a storytelling sensibility that is not only suited to comics, but would not be possible to pull off in any other medium. Again, be warned—it is a sincerely brutal read, in the tradition of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Beautiful, devastating, and unimpeachably unique to the comics medium, Habibi is a prime example of what comics can offer.
The Flight Anthologies, multiple authors, edited by Kazu Kibuishi
I’ll be honest with you—novels are cool and all, but at the end of the day, short stories are my absolute jam. A novel is a complete journey, and that’s satisfying, but story anthologies offer the inimitable feeling of being told a story around a campfire—the feeling that whole worlds exist before the story is told and continue to exist after it’s concluded, and before one story gets stale it is immediately replaced by a whole new one, dropped in en medias res to a whole new life. Also, to be less cornball about it, life is short, and short story collections are easy to dip in and back out of again without feeling cheated. Kazu Kibuishi’s Flight anthologies, meant to showcase young talent in the comics world, is perfect desert island reading for any comics fan. Beginning in 2004 and running until 2011, accumulating eight increasingly-hefty volumes of spectacular comic storytelling, the Flight series contains early works from many artists who are now at the very top of their careers, showing their not-so-humble beginnings. If long, sprawling graphic novels with one monotonous art style isn’t your thing, the Flight books offer a smorgasbord.
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
Fun Home is an autobiographical account of the author’s difficult, fascinating, and incredibly unique home life—the fact that it happened in a funeral home seems to be sort of an afterthought. The novel focuses on Bechdel’s strained relationship with her father, who came out as gay roughly the time she did, much to her frustration—it takes a lot of courage to come out, but imagine working yourself up to do it and then someone steals your thunder? And that someone is your dad? But that’s just one tiny anecdote from the book—Bechdel tells an intimate, dryly funny, empathetic but unflinchingly unsentimental story, illustrating how the author comes into her own identity and manages to ground herself, reacting to the dysfunction with a mind well-trained for both incredibly high-brow literary references and simple, unpretentious humor. A few years ago, Bechdel received a McArthur Genius Grant, and just reading through Fun Home, it’s easy to see why.
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware
This entry is a bit hypocritical, as it’s not a lesser-known title—though it might not have the same word-on-the-street name recognition as some other more famous graphic novels, Ware’s 2000 work is a best-seller and the recipient of much critical acclaim. Jimmy Corrigan follows two parallel narratives: the first follows Jimmy himself, a timid and browbeaten middle-aged man who meets his father for the first time over a Thanksgiving weekend, and the second shows another Jimmy, his grandfather, a lonely child dealing with his abusive father during the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. It is subtly implied that the World’s Fair storyline is the childhood of the first Jimmy, put through a historical filter. Both of these stories, but specifically the former, have met criticism for being too depressing, which is a sincere feat for the comics medium. Jimmy’s life is full of moments so crushingly awkward that he must sit inside a bathroom stall and weep on several different occasions. Aside from the crushing, soul-bruising depressive energy of the comic, it is intensely well-designed and formatted, following formal rules and guidelines typically held by cartoonists of the ‘30s (except for cases in which they are directly, intentionally subverted). Another interesting note; the design of young Jimmy, a young genius with a football-shaped head, is startlingly similar to the design of Stewie Griffin on Seth Macfarlane’s Family Guy.
Chris Ware is way too cool to have a website, but just look up his name on Amazon if you’d like to find any of his work. Or, preferably, support your local comics shop!
Through the Woods, by Emily Carroll
Typically, independent and small-press comics have a pretty broad scope—due to comics’ inherent lack of a necessary budget, the tone and subject material are pretty much limited to the skill and whim of the creators themselves. However, one genre feels (at least to this reader) tragically unexplored by the current boom: horror. Emily Carroll, an incredible illustrator and creator of several esteemed, dazzling webcomics, is comics’ current master of palpable dread and horror. While other horror comics (the biggest example, I guess, being Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead) focus on gore, loss of beloved characters, gore, cool drawings of violence, and a healthy dose of gore, Carroll’s comics express a quiet, desperate level of horror that calls back to the best of Edgar Allan Poe or early Stephen King. The situations described (in gorgeous, velvety blacks and arterial reds) in Carroll’s anthology Through the Woods cannot be escaped with gunfire, or with a well-placed hatchet, or a fast-enough getaway car, or a fortuitous crossbow bolt. Rather than Cronenberg or Romero, Carroll’s work takes its most obvious tonal cues from those earliest of all horror stories: Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The situations the protagonists find themselves result largely from unheeded warnings, personal hubris, or—most horrific at all—random, terrible chance. It takes a specific, powerful kind of talent to make static images on a page scary, and Carroll pulls this off with ease. Oh, and at the risk of sounding repetitive: the art is intensely gorgeous.
Thunderpaw/Vacancy, by Jen Lee
I adore and respect all of the cartoonists I’ve mentioned so far, including goliaths of the medium I haven’t mentioned, like R Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Dan Clowes, Charles Burns, and other artists who tend to write and draw sweaty people making funny faces (again, not talking smack—all of those cartoonists are incredible). But Jen Lee might be tied with Emily Carroll (and, I’ll be honest, like twelve other contemporary artists) for my favorite cartoonist currently working. Both Lee and Carroll, along with artists like Sophia Foster-Dimino, seemed to have found their early voices in webcomics, and perfected them there. Of those, and it is a difficult competition, Lee’s on-going animated webcomic Thunderpaw is my personal favorite example of the webcomic medium. Untethered to the page, unlimited by page-length, and capable of subtle-yet-cinematic instances of animation, Thunderpaw is a wonderful example of what webcomics can do. Her recent graphic novel, Vacancy, follows a nervous, nebbish dog named Simon pacing and waiting for his owners to return, after the world has apparently been destroyed by an unspecified apocalypse (which, let’s be honest, is the best kind). As he waits and tries to keep it together, a deer and a raccoon stop by the fence which marks the perimeter of his world, and breaks down a plank, allowing Simon to go “free,” if he so chooses. Vacancy’s story is staggeringly pretty, sharply written, and weirdly emotionally impactful—somehow, the fact that the animals are talking (and also wearing really cool little outfits) makes the power of the story more realistic, rather than less. Go check out Thunderpaw, and if you dig it, go check out Vacancy—Lee is going to be hugely famous in a matter of no time, allowing you the hipster pedigree of liking her before she was cool. (Spoiler: she was already pretty cool.)
Something Terrible, by Dean Trippe
Comics are an intensely personal medium—the act of one person sitting down to write and illustrate a sequential story guarantees that person be alone for long stretches of time, a near-meditative process that ensures the creator stare some difficult personal truths in the face. There are many comics about delicate personal issues, often dealing with abuse of many kinds (some of which I’ve already listed here), but even amid that crowd, Dean Trippe’s Something Terrible holds a special place. Quietly devastating and drawn with an idealistic, efficient style that could be, reductively, called “retro,” Terrible is the story of the author (with no Chris Ware “oh its not really me” bones made about it) recovering from a traumatic childhood event in a heartbreakingly realistic way. Born to a teenaged mother in Georgia, Trippe spent a largely-fatherless childhood escaping into the smiling, beatific heroes of his comics, from Batman to Darth Vader and every member of the geek gradient. After the titular trauma, Trippe manages to find a distinctly beautiful way to move on with his life in his adulthood—a way to create something beautiful out of something terrible. Of all the comics on this list, I challenge the harshest, coldest, stone-hearted cynic out there to read this book from the beginning to the gasp-inducing last page without rolling a tear. If you manage to do it, congratulations—there is an excellent chance you’re a vampire. Way to go.
Terrible Terrible Terrible/Sleepwalking, by Lauren Monger
Lauren Monger is another young cartoonist who will undoubtedly be rampantly famous someday, if she isn’t already. Known for her incredibly popular Terrible Terrible Terrible comics on tumblr, and having recently become featured on VICE.com, Monger’s comics are the sequential equivalent of a Mountain Goats song—scruffy, sparse, brutal, hilarious, and punctuated with such biting wit that reading it recaptures that rare feeling of Hanging Out With The Cool Kids. Her webcomic, called alternately Clementine and Terrible Terrible Terrible, follows Clem, a punk girl in Georgia who likes getting drunk and being rowdy. The strip consists mostly of Clem and her friends hanging out under overpasses, getting irresponsibly drunk, making fun of John Mellencamp, and occasionally summoning the dead. Terrible Terrible Terrible is pitch-perfect, bitingly clever, and hilarious. While many comics that attempt to be funny often only end up eliciting forced this-is-the-punchline laughs, Monger’s comics frequently end up inhabiting your head for a few weeks afterwards. To this day I have trouble listening to “Jack and Dianne” by John Mellencamp due to the influence of these strips.
If all of that sounds like too much “buying” and “ordering,” here are some awesome (and totally free) webcomics worth checking out:
Last but not least—hit up your local comics shop! Worcester happens to be home to the legendary, Eisner-nominated That’s Entertainment! right in the middle of our fair city.